“Just do what I do,” my father said. He started up the VW bus as I watched him from the shotgun seat. His hand moved the gearshift, his feet danced on the pedals. He shifted from first to second to third gear and back again several times as I scanned his movements. After one spin around the block, we switched places.
I was 22 years old and had never driven a stick, but my father assured me it was a snap—a child could do it. But I wasn’t the child he was talking about. The car was transformed into a roped wild stallion as I took the wheel, jerking down the road with no intention of being tamed. My father took the helm again and told me to watch more closely this time, but the car still refused to yield its secrets. He threw up his hands after five, six, who knows how many lunges and lurches and shouts of “Jesus Christ!” “We’ll try again tomorrow,” he said wearily, as if a good night’s sleep was all I needed.
After my humiliating driver’s ed lesson, I happened to notice the set of encyclopedias in our living room bookcase that I hadn’t looked at in years. I checked to see if there was any information on manual transmissions. I found a detailed description of how gears disengage and engage, reading it over a few times until I fully understood the process, ignoring the illustrations that accompanied them.
The next morning I waved off my father’s offer of another demo and took the wheel. The bucking bronco was subdued; I cruised effortlessly into second and third and back again. “I guess it sunk in overnight,” my father stammered, dumbfounded, his understanding of my transformation stuck in first gear. It took a while to sink in for me as well, but I eventually realized my father’s teaching method of all show and no tell didn’t work for me. I had discovered that, for me, words trump pictures when it comes to learning something new. I needed to understand what the car was doing as I shifted gears, and watching my father’s motions couldn’t give me that.
Pictures Usually Win Out in the Learning Equation
My preferred learning technique is not typical; pictures trump words in the learning process for most people. Based on research discussed in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people can remember more than 2,000 pictures with an accuracy rate of 90% three days after seeing the images—even if initially shown the images for a short duration. Other studies have shown that combining pictures with words significantly improves learning compared to the use of words alone. As modern brain imaging technology has shown, certain areas of the brain important to learning are more activated by pictures than by words. This activation promotes better retention in memory regions, making pictures easier to recall.
The value of pictures in learning is not surprising, considering their importance in the evolution of many species. Being able to recognize threatening images (for example, lion tracks if you are prey) or beneficial ones (the leaves of a bush yielding edible berries) has genuine survival value. Visual learning was around many centuries before language existed; words have been trying to catch-up ever since.
In today’s world, pictures are assuming more power in the learning process, especially with younger people. The dominance of visual media in everything from computer games to Instagram has given words a more subservient status. As noted by Marc Prensky, author of Digital Game-Based Learning: “In previous generations, graphics were generally illustrations, accompanying the text and providing elucidation. For today’s Games Generation, the relationship is almost completely reversed: the role of text is to elucidate something that was first experienced as an image.”
But simply having pictures and words together does not optimize learning; how visuals are placed within text also makes a difference. In her blog on the Creative Passionate Users website, Kathy Sierra discussed an experiment in which subjects were instructed to study a selection of text and graphics for five subsequent tests. In all five tests, a group exposed to text placed near the illustration (more integrated with it) performed better than a group exposed to text that appeared below the illustration (less integrated with the image). Unifying words and pictures requires less switching of attention between the two, which may allow for more “undivided” attention that can promote better learning.
What Kind of Learner Are YOU?
Learning doesn’t depend only on brain capacity. All information initially makes its way into our minds via the senses, and which senses are most important for learning can vary among people. Since we often take learning for granted, we may not always be aware of which sense is our most powerful portal for learning. But knowing our go-to sense can enable us to establish an environment that facilitates learning. Here are some tips from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency on how to enhance learning according to your sensory preference. (Although designed for students, these guidelines are valuable for learners of all ages and in all settings).
Listen Up: Tips for AUDITORY Learners
If you prefer hearing instructions rather than reading them silently to yourself, here are 4 tips for making the most of your “learning by ear” preference:
- Choose a seat in a classroom or meeting room where you can hear well.
- Have your hearing checked on a regular basis.
- Use flashcards to learn new words or other information, and read them aloud.
- Read aloud any stories, assignments, directions, or new information you need to know.
Seeing Is Believing: VISUAL Learners
Visual learners are best served by reading written information (that’s me) or seeing pictures. They are usually neat and clean people—after all, they are affected by what they see around them. Their attention is drawn to things that are colorful and filled with imagery. Here are 6 tips for visual learners:
- Sit near the front of the room.
- Have your eyesight checked on a regular basis.
- Try to visualize things that you hear or that are read to you.
- Write down key words, ideas, or instructions.
- Draw pictures to help understand new concepts.
- Color-code different types of information.
Reach Out and Touch Something: TACTILE Learners
Tactile learners best understand and remember things through physical activity, either movement or actual contact. Touching, moving, building, or drawing are all valuable modes of learning. Tactile learners are typically active and gesture frequently, get antsy if they have to sit still too long, and often communicate by touching. Here are 4 tips that enhance the tactile learning process:
- Participate in activities that involve touching, building, moving, or drawing.
- Do lots of hands-on activities, like art projects, taking walks, or acting out stories.
- Arrange flashcards in groups to show relationships between ideas.
- Use a computer to reinforce learning through the sense of touch.
Is Someone Reading Out Loud? Hit the Mute Button
Although I’m a language-dominant learner, spoken words are often a distraction when I’m trying to learn something new. I remember and understand information better when reading it silently to myself than when I hear someone read it—even if the person reading aloud is me.